From EL FARO ENGLISH: Summit in LA Showcases Biden’s Central America Problem

Jun 2, 2022
1:23 PM

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Guatemala in June 2021 to discuss migration, foreign investment, and other bilateral priorities. (Víctor Peña/El Faro)

Central America, in Brief: Four days before the Summit of the Americas begins on June 6 in Los Angeles, the U.S. is short on friends in the Northern Triangle. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, once President Joe Biden’s ally of last resort, said he will not attend amid an open feud over the reelection of the corrupt attorney general. Honduran Xiomara Castro said she wouldn’t attend without Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Only El Salvador’s provocateur president, Nayib Bukele, remains silent.

USAID Go Home?

On inauguration day the Biden administration looked at Central America’s troubled leadership and saw in President Giammattei its best, if not only chance for preserving influence in the north of the isthmus to curb political corruption. One year later, Guatemala was the first Central American country to announce it will decline the U.S. invitation to the Summit of the Americas to be held from June 6 to 8.

Tensions have been brewing for months. Last week, the Heritage Foundation and Washington Examiner reported that Giammattei privately accused the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, William Popp, in April of meeting with Indigenous leaders to “topple” his government. Giammattei also told the authors that he has “decided to ask” the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to leave the country for promoting “indigenism,” which to Giammattei, the authors interpret, is a Guatemalan version of “critical race theory.”

It’s true that the United States has insisted, as Vice President Kamala Harris did in her June 2021 trip, on voicing concerns over the marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Guatemala, some 45 percent of the population. But at the heart of the tensions is U.S. criticism of Giammattei’s decision to reappoint a key ally, Attorney General Consuelo Porras, on May 16 to a second term through 2026, despite sanctions against her for shielding the President from criminal investigations into multimillion-dollar bribery schemes.

Giammattei called Porras’ reelection an expression of “national sovereignty.” Her bid received key support from CACIF, Guatemala’s powerful business association, and from the Foundation against Terrorism, an advocacy group with deep ties to the military and a lead architect of legal attacks against independent prosecutors and judges.

The Biden administration, which calls corruption a critical national security issue, saw the selection of the new attorney general as a small window of opportunity in a backsliding democracy. A source close to the White House told El Faro English that they set as a diplomatic objective the appointment of anyone but Porras. Thirteen embassies offered technical assistance to Congress in the nomination process, eliciting accusations from Giammattei of “foreign interference.”

The events caused rumblings in Washington. On April 29, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah requested a report from the State Department on “inappropriate influence” by the U.S. Embassy and USAID in the selection process, an example of Giammattei’s successful lobbying to portray U.S. anti-corruption activism as partisan meddling. The Heritage Foundation titled its analysis: “The Biden administration placates American foes while pummeling American friends.”

On the night of Porras’ reelection, the State Department revoked the visa of her husband, the relative of an official involved in “significant corruption.” Giammattei responded the next day by announcing that he will not attend the summit. “This country may be small, but as long as I’m president, this country and its sovereignty will be respected,” he said at an event at the Mexican Embassy.

String of Absences

It would be the second time that Guatemala does not attend a Biden diplomatic gathering. In the runup to the Democracy Summit in December, the U.S. cited concerns about democratic institutions in uninviting Giammattei, along with Nayib Bukele and former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, the last of whom is now sitting in an American jail. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega was never on the list, nor will he attend the summit in Los Angeles.

But the case that would most underscore a diplomatic failure in the isthmus would be if Xiomara Castro stays home. Since becoming president of Honduras in January, she has shown her interest in a closer relationship with the United States, which has said it will support her new government in any way possible. Vice President Harris attended her inauguration, and the two have exchanged diplomatic phone calls in recent months.

The mutual courtship has not yet convinced Castro to fly to Los Angeles. She joined Mexico and Bolivia in requesting that Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua be on the guest list. On a Wednesday press call, Biden National Security Advisor Juan González tried to minimize the issue, saying that they “haven’t been so focused on who is and isn’t invited” but rather on the outcomes of the reunion. He then recognized that the White House is still weighing —four days before the summit— the three countries’ attendance.

It’s still unclear whether Nayib Bukele will be part of the summit —possibly setting the stage for further confrontation— or look the other way altogether. He has only said, after meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in early May, that “it’s important to discuss hemispheric issues in a holistic way.”

Hanging over the gathering is the State Department’s promise to expand this month the ‘Engel List’ sanctions expected to touch Bukele’s inner circle, as well as Guatemalan officials involved in the reelection of Consuelo Porras.

By all indicators, Costa Rica will attend, but the U.S. Democrat administration has yet to forge its relationship with the new conservative outsider president, Rodrigo Chaves, who declared a national emergency in mid-May, a week after taking office, to fend off Russian hackers holding government servers for ransom.

That leaves Panama as one of the few partners to the United States in the summit’s long —and expected to be largely empty— table. The central bilateral issues in the country are Chinese influence, drug trafficking, and global, not Central American, migration over the Darien Gap.

It’s ironic that Biden’s closest ally in Central America happens to be the farthest from the U.S. border. People in the region even joke that the country, which two centuries ago was part of Gran Colombia, is not really Central America.

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